The homing pigeon is a variety of domestic pigeon (Columba livia domestica) derived from the rock pigeon, selectively bred for its ability to find its way home over extremely long distances. The wild rock pigeon has an innate homing ability, meaning that it will generally return to its nest, (it is believed) using magnetoreception.
This made it relatively easy to breed from the birds that repeatedly found their way home over long distances. Flights as long as 1,800 km (1,100 miles) have been recorded by birds in competitive pigeon racing. Their average flying speed over moderate 965 km (600 miles) distances is around 97 km/h (60 miles per hour) and speeds of up to 160 km/h (100 miles per hour) have been observed in top racers for short distances.
Because of this skill, homing pigeons were used to carry messages as messenger pigeons. They are usually referred to as “pigeon post” if used in post service, or “war pigeon” during wars.
The use of pigeons for military purposes extends back centuries, but World War I introduced widespread battlefield use of the birds where they demonstrated reliability as messengers and the ability for usage with a variety of forces. In World War I, the Signal Corps reported an overall message delivery rate of 95 percent. In 1944, the Army reported pigeon-delivered tactical message rates at 99 percent.
After success with combat operations in Europe in World War I, the U.S. military employed pigeons in the Pacific, Europe, and North Africa in the second war. Messages evolved from small pieces of rice paper to sections of map grids to eventual exposed photographic film.
They took part in Operation Overlord with paratroopers in the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions, and were carried up the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc with the Rangers in special containers.
During World War II, the British Confidential Pigeon Service of MI14(d) dropped baskets of homing pigeons behind enemy lines for espionage purposes, gathering invaluable military intelligence in the process from a wide array of French, Dutch, and Belgian civilians. Even as a one-way means of communication, the pigeon proved an invaluable military asset. One RAF pigeon was claimed to have flown 82 miles in 22 minutes to deliver a message that helped with the rescue of two wrecked seaplane pilots.
Other birds parachuted into Burma with members of the Office of Strategic Services, carrying messages behind enemy lines, while others found a home inside the confines of Sherman tanks. The Tank Corps often used carrier pigeons to relay information during an advance.
Thousands of birds found work aboard the heavy bombers of the Army Air Forces in raids over Europe. In the Italian campaign, pigeons proved invaluable in transmitting messages over rugged terrain to coordinate fire missions for aircraft or artillery.
Much as pigeons can adapt and thrive in practically every environ on the planet, the same held true for military employment of the birds. Birds played a vital part in the Invasion of Normandy as radios could not be used for fear of vital information being intercepted by the enemy.
Pigeon can still carry more data than Broadband Internet
Things have changed a lot since then, and the amount of data that can be carried within a given volume and weight has increased massively. In February 2019, SanDisk announced the world’s first one terabyte microSD card. Like all other microSD cards, it’s tiny, measuring just 15 mm × 11 mm × 1 mm, and it weighs a mere 250 milligrams. It holds an enormous amount of data in a very small physical space, and you can buy one for US $550. For some context, the first 512 GB microSD card showed up barely a year ago, in February 2018.
And pigeons can fly incredible distances—the world record for a carrier pigeon seems to be held by one intrepid bird that managed to fly from Arras, France, back to its nest in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, a distance of 11,500 km, a trip which took it 24 days.
Most carrier pigeons don’t fly nearly that far, of course. Typical long race distances, Lesofski says, are about 1,000 km, with birds traveling at sustained speeds of around 70 km/h. Over shorter distances, sprinters can reach speeds of up to 177 km/h, according to Drew Lesofski, a racing pigeon fancier in Maryland,
Pigeons are able to carry a significant percentage of their body weight in payload— the average carrier pigeon weighs about 500 grams, and during the early 1900s, carrier pigeons carrying cameras weighing as much as 75 grams strapped to their chests flew reconnaissance missions over enemy territory. The distances flown by homing pigeons can vary from 10s to over a 1,000 miles over unfamiliar terrain or open water, at speeds from 60 to over 90 miles per hour.
Considering an average case if you were to load up a carrier pigeon to its average capacity of 37.5 grams with 1 TB microSD cards weighing 250 mg each, or the pigeon would be carrying a total of 150 TB of data or equvivalently 150 microSD cards Then pigeon flying up to an average distance of 1000 Km with average flight speed of 70 km/h, in 14.28 hrs. the average data transfer capacity then amounts to 10.5 terrabytes an hour.
Consider the average internet speeds which have not increased at same rate. Internet speed is measured in megabits per second (Mbps), and the higher the number of megabits your plan has, the faster the connection. For instance, many broadband packages will offer speeds of up to 100Mbps. It’s possible to get even higher speeds of up to 1000Mbps but these contracts are pricey and not necessary for average households. Therefore, the proportion our ability to both generate and store data is growing relative to our ability to move it around over the kinds of networks that are accessible to most people.
Therefore the fact is, though, that even under realistic assumptions about pigeon payload and speed and available Internet connectivity, the raw bandwidth of a carrier pigeon is hard to beat.
In 2009 race was held by an IT company in Durban, South Africa, called Unlimited IT. In South Africa, a carrier pigeon carrying a 4GB memory stick proved to be faster than the ADSL service from the country’s biggest web firm, Telkom. Winston the pigeon took one hour and eight minutes to carry the data across the 60-mile course, and it took another hour to upload the data. During the same time, the ADSL had sent just 4% of the data.
However, in this example the additional latency caused by the time or effort it takes to copy data onto the microSD cards on the front end, affix them to the pigeons, and then read the data once the pigeons arrive at their destination. Latency is obviously very high, making anything but one-way transfers impractical. And the largest constraint is that carrier pigeons only travel in one direction to one place, meaning that you have no choice of destinations and you need to transport them to where you’d like them to depart from, limiting how useful they are in practice.
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line but pigeons rarely fly in straight lines. They tend to zig zag, flying in a general direction and then make course corrections as they get closer to their destination. Some are better athletes and fly faster than others, but a pigeon with a better homing ability in good health and condition can beat a fast flying pigeon who has a bad compass.
Lesofski has fairly high confidence in pigeons as potential data carriers: “I’d feel totally comfortable sending information on my pigeons,” he says, with a prudent margin for safety: “I’d release at least three together to make sure that if one has a lesser compass, [hopefully] one of the others has a better one, ensuring a greater speed for all three birds.”
Historically, pigeons carried messages only one way, to their home. They had to be transported manually before another flight. However, by placing their food at one location and their home at another location, pigeons have been trained to fly back and forth up to twice a day reliably, covering round-trip flights up to 160 km (100 mi).
On 1 April, 1990, David Waitzman submitted a Request for Comment (RFC) to the Internet Engineering Task Force’s network working group called “A Standard for the Transmission of IP Datagrams on Avian Carriers,” now known as IPoAC. RFC 1149 describes “an experimental method for the encapsulation of IP datagrams in avian carriers,” and with several updates that address both quality of service concerns and a transition to IPv6 (published on April 1, 1999 and April 1, 2011 respectively).
Apart from their high data carrying capacility, they are invaluable to military under current intense electronic warfare and cyber warfare scenario. Electronic and Cyber Warfare has become extremely long range and sophisticated, through which adversaries are able to employ high powered Air and Ground systems that can Jam and/or intercept adversary’s Radar, Communications and Command and Control systems at extended ranges using complex digital signals. In the ongoing conflict with Ukraine, Russia’s extensive electronic warfare activities use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and ground systems to conduct electromagnetic reconnaissance and jamming against satellite, cellular and radio communication systems along with GPS spoofing and electronic warfare attacks against Ukrainian UAVs.
In such a modern electronic warfare scenario, militaries should reexamine the utility of homing pigeons in providing military communications in the Battlespace.
Military pigeon forces are all but extinct, but yet the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and French Ground Army maintain small pigeon forces in the event that electronic warfare should disrupt or disable military communications.
Pigeons are certainly no substitute for drones, but they provide a low-visibility option to relay information. Considering the storage capacity of microSD memory cards, a pigeon’s organic characteristics provide front line forces a relatively clandestine mean to transport gigabytes of video, voice, or still imagery and documentation over considerable distance with zero electromagnetic emissions or obvious detectability to radar. These decidedly low-technology options prove difficult to detect and track.
Pigeons cannot talk under interrogation, although they are not entirely immune to being held under suspicion of espionage. Within an urban environment, a pigeon has even greater potential to blend into the local avian population, further compounding detection. The latter presumably factored into the use of pigeons to clandestinely smuggle drugs, defeating even the most sophisticated of walls.
Furthermore, pigeons provide an asymmetric tool available for hybrid warfare purposes. The low-cost, low-technology use of pigeons to transport information or potentially small amounts of chemical agents — or even coded cyber weapons — makes them a quick and easy asset to distribute among a civilian population for wider military purposes.